LONDON — Every family has its secrets, says writer and director Peter Stephan Jungk at the opening of his gripping documentary, “Tracking Edith.” His family’s was revealed only decades later.
Jungk had always known that his Austrian-born great aunt, Edith Tudor-Hart, was a talented, professional documentary photographer. But it was not until 20 years after her death in 1973 that he learned she had led a double life.
As a spy for the Soviet Union for decades, Tudor-Hart likely influenced the course of history: She is thought to have introduced British intelligence officer Kim Philby to her communist handler, Andre Deutsch, who then recruited him as a double agent. Philby went on to become the most notorious member of the Cambridge Five, a ring of British spies who passed information to the Soviet Union from the 1930s until 1950s. He later defected to the Soviet Union.
“Tracking Edith” is based on Jungk’s 2015 biography, “Die Dunkelkammern der Edith Tudor-Hart” (“The Darkrooms of Edith Tudor-Hart”), and the film includes interviews with ex-KGB spies, historians, espionage experts and family members. It examines the significance of Tudor-Hart’s life, both as a photographer of social injustice and as an unpaid secret agent.
The story is as absorbing as any great spy novel — but also recounts a complex, chaotic and ultimately tragic tale. Tudor-Hart had limited professional success, catastrophic relationships with men and endured poverty, leading her, at times, to have to pawn her camera.
The film premiered in Vienna in 2016 and earlier this summer it received a cinematic release in the UK, following a selection of screenings at international film festivals. It is also scheduled to screen at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in March next year as part of EPOS International Art Film Festival.
Speaking on the phone from his Paris office, Jungk explains what prompted him to investigate his great aunt’s story.
“I had found something [about Tudor-Hart] in a newspaper and during a lunch in London, I mentioned to Edith’s brother, Wolf Suschitzky [the renowned photographer and cinematographer] that I had no idea his sister had been ‘a talent spotter for the KGB,’” says Jungk.
Suschitzky denied it, telling Jungk that it was nonsense and to forget about it. But, says Jungk, Suschitzky’s son Peter, also a cinematographer, was at the same lunch and refuted what his father had said. He acknowledged that they knew Edith had worked for the Soviet Secret Service.
“So, you can imagine that for a writer to hear that, I had to find out more,” says Jungk.
Tudor-Hart’s background was a contributing factor to her political activism. Her parents owned a bookshop in a working-class district in Vienna, as well as a small publishing house that printed progressive books.
Tudor-Hart’s father, a dedicated socialist, was an early political influence, but his politics were not extreme enough for Edith. At a young age, she joined the Austrian communist youth movement, becoming an activist, and later a courier for Comintern — an international organization that advocated communism.
But by far the strongest influence in her life, believes Jungk, was the dedicated communist, academic and Soviet spy, Arnold Deutsch, whom she met and fell in love with — despite him being married — when she was 17.
“Deutsch is a fascinating figure,” says Jungk. “Not only does he recruit her to work for the Communist Party, but he also gives her her first camera.”
Edith studied photography at the Bauhaus in Dessau, and throughout her career used her Rolleiflex camera as a tool to deliver a strong social message. As it had to be held at waist height, her face was not hidden and this enabled better communication with her subjects.
Tudor-Hart saw the camera as a political weapon, says Jungk, and photographed working class life in Vienna, London, and the Rhondda Valley in Wales. Her recurring themes are homelessness, child welfare, unemployment, and poverty.
But she was also a children’s photographer, and in Jungk’s opinion some of her best work is portrayed in “Moving and Growing,” a project produced by the British Ministry of Education in the 1950s which, by contrast, depicts healthy, happy, carefree children, looking forward to a hopeful future.
“It’s magnificent. Every time I see it, I’m moved,” says Jungk. “But it’s not known enough, and it’s a shame.”
He credits curator and photographic historian Duncan Forbes for helping to establish Tudor-Hart as an important photographer. In 2013, Forbes curated one of the few exhibitions of her work at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, printing images from her limited negative archive.
Tudor-Hart burned many of her negatives following Philby’s first arrest in order to protect herself from incrimination. But, aside from Forbes’s efforts, Jungk feels that Tudor-Hart’s work hasn’t been recognized fully and hopes that the film will go some way to address this.
As well as portraying her photographic work, the film uses black and white animation sequences as a means to help tell Tudor-Hart’s story — a necessity, as there was no live action footage of her available.
“We didn’t have a choice,” says Jungk. “I always cringe when I see re-enactments of scenes with actors in documentaries, but I had seen a film about Khodorkovsky, a Russian oligarch, which used black and white animated film so well, so I decided to do the same.”
On the suggestion of his producer, Lillian Birnbaum, these images are made in the style of film noir, based on storyboards they had found from the 1930s.
In 1933, Tudor-Hart was arrested in Vienna for being a communist sympathizer. Exiled to the UK, she married British doctor Alexander Tudor-Hart, who had left his wife and two children to be with her. She continued her work for the Soviets.
Despite her dedication to the cause, Tudor-Hart never went to Moscow. Jungk is unsure as to why that was.
“Maybe she knew that her dreams might be shattered. Who knows?” he guesses. “Or she was warned. There were so many devoted communists who were massacred in the Great Purge [in 1936-38] and she must have heard about that. I have no [real] answer to that and have no personal notes or journals of hers [to draw on], as she burned a lot of stuff with her negatives.”
Jungk did know his great aunt, but not well, he says, having only met her four or five times before she died when he was in his early 20s.
“As much as I remember, I saw someone rather sad, but not depressed,” he recalls. “And that’s not only because of what I now know.”
Her sadness, he theorizes, might have been because her cousin — his mother — had a child “who was okay,” whereas she herself did not. Edith’s son, Tommy, is now understood to have been severely autistic and was eventually placed in an institution.
As part of his research into his great aunt’s clandestine life, Jungk tried, unsuccessfully, many times over the years to access Tudor-Hart’s ex-Soviet files, held in the archives of Russia’s external intelligence agency, the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR RF) in Moscow.
“I wrote letters to them,” he says, “Most of which were never answered and if they were, they gave completely weird answers. For the time being, they don’t want anybody to see anything, no matter how close or how important they are.”
However, as the film explains, Jungk did locate a number of files in the National Archives in London, which revealed that MI5, the British Secret Service had been observing Tudor-Hart’s activities for years. They listened into her phone conversations, intercepted her mail and knew about her short relationship with child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott, whom she had taken her son to see in search of a diagnosis and cure.
After Philby’s arrest, MI5’s interest in Edith increased. A 1952 report based on an interview with Edith and two MI5 officers stated that “This woman prevaricated from one end of the interview to the other… She answered questions in the manner of a person well trained to resist an interrogation.”
By mid 1952, she had a nervous breakdown — possibly, as the film suggests, arising from pressure and fear that her cover would be blown.
Throughout the film, Jungk tries to understand why this Austrian-Jewish woman was a spy for the Soviet Union.
Jungk says the film was able to answer this question “to a certain degree.”
“I think that she believed that communism was the only force on the planet that could win against fascism,” Jungk says. “And it was so prevalent in Austria in the late ’20s and early ’30s, and she thought that only a strong Soviet Union could be a force again it.
“But why she stayed with them through the late ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, up until her death, is difficult for me to understand,” he says.
Perhaps, Jungk suggests, it can be chalked up to extreme dedication to a cause.
“And if you’re not a turncoat — and she certainly was not — you feel like you’re betraying your deepest beliefs [if you leave],” he says. “I think that she had a few doubts after the Hungarian crisis in 1956, which I write about in the book — but then she has no reaction to the Prague Spring in 1968.
“Don’t forget,” he adds, “Once you join or are working for the KGB, you cannot say, ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake.’”
Tudor-Hart was subjected to repeated interrogations, and was even referred to as “the grandmother of us all” during a 1964 confession by Cambridge Five member Anthony Blunt. Still, MI5 were unable to provide evidence of her espionage.
She was, however, prevented from working for the press or for publishing houses, and eventually left London for Brighton, where she opened a very small shop selling antiques.
Later, it appears that the Soviet Secret Service no longer wanted her to work for them, Jungk says.
“After she went to Brighton, I don’t see any trace of her really doing anything for them,” he says.
But from then on, she stopped taking photographs.
“She must have decided, and of course she was also told, to stop photographing. It is one of the saddest elements of her life, apart from Tommy,” Jungk says. “In a way, politics destroyed her art.”